published December 31, 1969

SENCER E-Newsletter, August 2003, Volume 2, Issue 2

Science and Community Outreach - By: Kari Murad

"They (students) are invited to pursue academic excellence, to discover, and develop fully their personal and professional goals, and to contribute actively as caring individuals to the larger community."
—From The College of Saint Rose Mission Statement

In deciding to accept a teaching position at The College of Saint Rose three years ago, it was this line from the College's mission statement that tipped the balance for me to choose Saint Rose as a place to begin my career in teaching science. Why this line? Well, all colleges promote academic excellence and most hope their students develop goals during their years of study at a given institution, but how many colleges paint the larger context of active community outreach into their educational picture? Although the idea of community outreach juxtaposes nicely with many fields of academic pursuit, the challenge for me became creating a link between the sciences and community outreach.

Luckily for me, I was not walking alone toward this goal. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, in affiliation with the National Science Foundation, had recently begun a new initiative in the reform of science education. This initiative, called SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) is directly involved in the teaching of science using civic engagement. The Saint Rose SENCER team in 2001 consisted of members from the following academic disciplines: natural sciences, education, psychology and math, and spent four days in sunny California reflecting on the use of civic engagement in the sciences. Our discussions led to the creation of a few new science courses and the improvement of existing courses to reflect issues surrounding our immediate, as well as the larger, community. Local concerns that were discussed included managing the Pine Bush Preserve, PCB contamination in the Hudson River, acid rainfall in the Adirondack Mountains and public health. In each case, the focus of discussion involved connecting the application of scientific knowledge to issues of local public policy.

The SENCER ideals were tested out on one of my non-major biology classes in the Fall 2002 semester. The students in my Biology of AIDS (BIO 118) class were educated on the history of the HIV epidemic, HIV structure and physiology, HIV/AIDS detection and pathology, current epidemiology, and control measures. In addition to the normal course work, this class received a service learning assignment that was to be completed by the end of the term. Students had their choice of one of three community service options. The first option involved ten or more hours of volunteer work within the Capital District for an organization or event involved in HIV/AIDS education. Most students selected this option. I had students involved in:

  • Walking in AIDS Walk 2001 (September 30, 2001) in Washington Park in Albany;
  • Volunteering for the Empire State Plaza World AIDS Day events (November 26, 2001 through December 1, 2001);
  • Visiting HIV/AIDS patients in local hospitals; and
  • Organizing an event that brought two panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and a guest speaker to the Saint Rose campus (November 30, 2001).

The second option was to teach a lesson on public health, infectious disease and epidemiology to an after-school program, girls/boys club, local 4-H or local school. This lesson was made age-appropriate depending on what grade level the students chose. The third option involved writing letters to local, state or national officials involved in making decisions in public policy and HIV/AIDS. We sent letters to President Bush and New York Senators Clinton and Schumer, as well as college leaders.

At the end of the semester, my students turned in written statements on how their civic engagements connected with their academic learning. Describing his participation in AIDSwalk 2001, one student wrote the following: "On September 20, 2001, I was reborn. The education on the biology of AIDS was an integral portion of my learning, but the Service Learning Project made the AIDS epidemic real, something it had never been prior," said Scott Cheney, a student in the class. On reflection, this project was one of the most challenging, yet rewarding educational experiences for both the students and for myself.

Kari Murad is assistant professor of biology at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY